With more consumers seeking out healthy options for their pets beyond food and treats, the natural chews category has nothing but growth in its future.
With a large and continually expanding variety of products on the market, chews are clearly no exception to the ever-growing trend toward natural pet products seen throughout the industry. By looking for reliable and transparent manufacturing partners and implementing an education-focused merchandising and marketing strategy, retailers can take advantage of the high sales potential of the natural chews category.
While natural remains a difficult-to-define and unregulated term throughout the industry, manufacturers can give retailers an idea of what characteristics make a particular chew fit the term, helping them select the best products for this section in their stores. To start with, most consider the absence of artificial colors, flavors, preservatives and other additives a key feature. Some manufacturers also include wheat free, corn free and soy free when describing their concept of a natural chew, while others focus on processing to define the category.
“For QT Dog, a ‘natural’ chew is a single-ingredient item that has been processed only to the extent that the safety of the pet and pet parent is ensured,” says Mike Thomas, vice president of development at QT Dog. For example, Thomas points to QT Dog’s antler chews, which are simply cut to size and then sterilized to mitigate the risk of salmonella or E. coli, with no other alterations.
Bill Chilian, vice president of marketing at Barkworthies, gives a similar description for the category, emphasizing minimal changes in manufacturing the product.
“At Barkworthies, we’d characterize a natural chew as a product that is simple and unadulterated, as close as one can get to the way it is found in nature,” he says. “We believe that simple and natural is better.”
As with all kinds of consumable product categories in the pet market, natural is an increasingly important quality to many pet parents shopping for a healthy chew. More pet owners are looking for short ingredient lists in food and treats, and this demand for simple, natural products is driving increased demand for natural chews.
“Pet parents want fewer ingredients, transparency and to understand exactly what is inside anything they give to their beloved pet—and more importantly, in some cases, what is not,” says Jeff Camosci, vice president of sales and marketing for North America at Paragon Pet Products, makers of WHIMZEES dental chews. “Pet parents definitely want to avoid artificial additives like preservatives and added sugars in dog chews and seek out natural and healthy ingredients.”
Within the natural chew category, trends are pointing toward a greater variety in the types of chews in demand, such as novel proteins, as well as limited- or single-ingredient products. Laura Jones, president of Jones Natural Chews, is also seeing growth in unique protein sources and combination chews, like her company’s new Frank N Woofer, a chicken and beef combination.
Chilian also notes that consumers are becoming more willing to consider unfamiliar chews, especially when it comes to the natural-focused customer. “Shoppers are becoming more and more adventurous in the type of chews they buy,” he says. “Parents are increasingly on the lookout for novel ways to promote the health and happiness of their pets.”
To support this, Chilian points to the success of the company’s recently introduced Root Chews, an organic chew made from root wood that acts as a natural toothbrush. Beyond organic, natural and minimally processed ingredients, pet owners are also placing a premium on product safety in terms of sourcing in this category. Customers are seeking out made-in-the-USA options from companies with trustworthy sourcing and manufacturing practices.
“Among the biggest trends we’ve witnessed in recent years is the public’s migration to safety,” Chilian says. “Pet parents are flocking to products that are made in the USA. To offer retailers what they need to successfully compete, we’ve introduced over 60 made-in-the-USA items since 2015.”
To succeed with this category, retailers need to ensure that they and their store associates are well-informed on the sourcing and processing practices of the manufacturers whose products they carry. Tim Fabits, vice president of sales at Redbarn Pet Products, says that being able to demonstrate the high quality of natural chews to customers is key to generating sales, especially for more expensive products.
“Retailers should be able to provide their pet parents with specific information on where products are sourced, produced and the processing steps taken to ensure that what they are purchasing is the highest quality available,” Fabits says. “While price points are always a concern, it is proven that consumers will invest more in products that exceed their criteria of how they define quality.”
With an ever-growing assortment of natural chews available, retailers need to take a thoughtful approach to creating the right selection for their store. For example, Thomas advises looking to smaller and regional manufacturers to find unique products. Some manufacturers, such as Redbarn, can also provide data showing which varieties are most popular in a particular area or with a certain demographic.
“Our team has very robust data regarding products that excel in a specific market or region of the country,” Fabits says. “We are always willing to share that information with our retail and distribution partners to help build their category and drives sales. Working with their area representative to help secure this information will eliminate a trial-and-error approach and allow for an immediate impact at their retail location.”
Mixing up familiar options with more novel products in merchandising a natural chews section can also prove effective, according to Chilian. He advises retailers to carry staples of the category, such as bully sticks, tendons, tracheas and jerky, and then flank them with newer and trending types of chews like naturally shed elk, deer and moose antlers. For customers looking for options for pets with food sensitivities, he recommends including alternative protein options like crocodile and kangaroo.
With the right marketing materials and an informed store staff, USA-made can also serve as a strong selling point and attract new customers to the natural chews category. In addition, retailers could consider arranging the section by type or size of dog, or by chewing styles.
“Having a call-out to a USA section is effective, as is categorizing the chews by either protein source or recommended dog size,” Jones says. “It is important for the retailers to understand the country of origin, the ingredients and the chewing consistency of each product.”
In particular, owners with aggressive chewers will likely be looking for a product that not only tastes great, but can stand up to their dog’s chewing style. By inquiring about the pet’s approach to chews, retailers can ensure that customers go home with the most appropriate option, such as longer-lasting chews like horns, Chilian says. Taking the time to help pet parents find the right natural chew for their pet will help encourage repeat sales in the category.
Customer education is also key for driving sales with newer introductions to the category. Ashley Czarnota, marketing coordinator for Pet ‘n Shape, advises retailers to make sure their employees are up-to-date on the features of different chews so they are equipped to inform a shopper who may be on the fence about trying an unfamiliar item.
“With some natural products that are newer to the market, such as items like chicken feet, the consumer may have questions regarding safety or may be hesitant to try something very different from their typical treat purchases,” she says. “Retailers should thoroughly educate their salespeople about their product selection so that customers don’t hesitate to purchase due to lack of information. Also, free samples are always a great way to get customers to try new items.”
Of course, retailers should also make sure their natural chew section has clear signage and useful product information as well. Thomas advises looking to the manufacturers to provide these kinds of materials.
“Retailers need to bug the manufacturers for as much free promotional literature, signage and samples as they can get,” he says “Producers should be falling over themselves to provide all the tools that the retailer needs to effectively educate and then sell to their customers.”
Camosci echoes this sentiment, emphasizing that floor displays can be key to grabbing customers’ attention and securing sales.
“Exceptional and space efficient branded POS and POP solutions are very important to help retailers showcase what they offer to their customers, and also offer a great tool to help sell more product,” he says, highlighting the bulk floor fixture and countertop units available from WHIMZEES. “Consumers select their product of choice if there are no stores associates available to help, so POP is critical. It’s important that pet parents are able to touch and feel the products while, at the same time, being educated.”